Saturday, October 8, 2016

In Praise of Wild Game

A fellow hunter recently posted an invite to his and another friend’s 23rd annual wild game feed. We won’t make it this year, but seeing the reminder began a lively conversation at our house. We couldn’t help but talk hunting and its rewards—healthy, delicious meat, friendship, and great stories. That’s what this wild game feed is all about. Longtime companions joined by newcomers share their best recipes and swap tales as an October sun sets over Cedar Bluff.

As a cook, I love arriving at a cabin overlooking steel grey waters, red and sere grasses, and golden cottonwoods to discover counters and tables laden with overflowing pans and platters of meat. Old standards like grilled bacon-wrapped dove breasts or fried pheasant or quail tease nostrils and eyes as guests first arrive. Presentation gets creative. Innovative cooks deliver casseroles of wild turkey tetrazzini and enchiladas for those who like ethnic foods. We’ve had Asian variations and twists on McDonald’s McNuggets. Brave appetites savor rustic offerings like fried chunks of snapping turtle or rattle snake and the occasional mystery meat.

One year, a trapper froze some of his harvest in anticipation of this event. He and his wife marinated and grilled meaty strips for us to sample. A line of folks with empty plates kept him busy at a Traeger preparing second servings. Diners enjoyed debating the source of this food until he eventually told us we’d eaten slivers of bobcat steaks. Once he shared this info, several diners lost their appetites for this dish. I’m guessing they owned house cats. At first, I shared their response until I recollected reading trappers’ journals from the 1800s. Many of these historic writers praised cougar meat over elk or moose. I’d always wondered about this. After trying this smaller cousin of the big cat, I decided these old- timers’ praises had merit. 

While native game serves as the focal point of the menu, several cooks specialize in homemade jellies from wild fruits. One of the participants spends time in Montana every summer where he competes with bears to pick gallons of native huckleberries. His jellies and cobblers always get rave revues. Another friend brings her wild grape jelly that she makes in years when she can beat birds to the purple orbs. For those who’ve never tasted this treat, they’re missing out. Others offer chokecherry and wild plum syrups and jellies to slather on homemade rolls and biscuits. No one leaves hungry.

One of the organizers worked with a news writer who also contributed to Saveur foodie magazine. After attending as a guest, he joined us one year specifically to gather information for an article. He’d grown up in eastern Kansas and wasn’t yet a devoted hunter, angler, or wild game cook. After reading his article and seeing that he clearly understood the conservation ethic driving the efforts of these sportsmen, I was glad he shared their story. I hope his essay opened people’s minds about harvesting and preparing wild game.

While food is the focal point of this special event, the shared hunting stories make it memorable. This good friends’ feast weaves our lives together through shared hunting and fishing tales.

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